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|1388 (Feb.)||Simon Grimsby I|
|1388 (Sept.)||Thomas Waltham|
|Thomas Kirkby I|
|Thomas Kirkby I|
|1394||Simon Grimsby I|
|Thomas Kirkby I|
|Thomas Kirkby I|
|1397 (Jan.)||William Terry I|
|Thomas Kirkby I|
|1399||William Terry I|
|Thomas Kirkby I|
|Thomas Kirkby I|
|Thomas Kirkby I|
|1413 (May)||John Fitling|
|1414 (Nov.)||John Aldwick|
|1416 (Mar.)||John Saunderson|
|Walter Grimsby 1|
|1419||John Bedford II|
|1420||John Bedford II|
|1421 (May)||John Bedford II|
|1421 (Dec.)||Thomas Marshall|
|Robert Holme II|
Originally known as Wyke-upon-Hull, the port of Kingston-upon-Hull did not assume its second name until well after 1293, the date of its acquisition by Edward I from its previous owner, the abbot of Meaux. Wyke had been developed as a ‘new town’ by the monks for the export of their wool crop, and flourished so rapidly that by the late 13th century it ranked among the top four ports in England which dealt in that commodity. Its success was largely due to its geographical position at the confluence of the river Humber and a tributary, the river Hull, some 20 miles or so from the North Sea. The Humber gave access to some of the richest wool and cloth producing areas in the north, which, in turn, provided a ready market for the burgeoning wine trade with France, as well as other imports from the Low Countries and the Baltic. But another key factor in Wyke’s development was Edward I’s decision to use the port as a base for his campaigns against the Scots; and it was because of the important part which it played in provisioning his armies that the borough was incorporated by a royal charter of 1299, some six years after the change of ownership. Although still under the authority of a royal keeper, the burgesses were then granted the right to elect their own coroner, and to hold an annual fair and two weekly markets, for which privileges they paid just £66, in marked contrast to the nearby town of Ravenser, whose almost identical charter cost £300. During the 1320s, if not before, the internal affairs of the borough were directed by two chamberlains elected by the townspeople from the ranks of the wealthier residents; but a far greater degree of independence was achieved in 1331, when they were permitted to select a mayor and two bailiffs annually at Michaelmas, and to pay a fee farm of £70 directly to the Exchequer at Westminster. Because of their loyal service against the Scots, they obtained another charter, in 1334, granting them the right to establish a statute merchant; and somewhat later, in 1382, the jurisdiction of the town’s authorities was widened and augmented to cover the haven of the river Hull. This extension of their powers was particularly welcome to the mayor and bailiffs, who had for some time been embroiled in a dispute with successive archbishops of York over certain rights and franchises in the harbour.2 Ill-feeling between the townspeople and the ecclesiastical authorities came to a head during the 1380s while the unpopular royal favourite, Alexander Neville, occupied the archiepiscopate. One local tradition actually recalls a confrontation between him and the burgesses, led by Thomas Waltham, the then mayor, who is said to have attacked him with his own crosier.
Hull was eventually accorded the status of a shire-incorporate in 1440, at which date formal provision was made for the annual election of the mayor from a body of 13 aldermen. For the best part of a century, however, a more loosely constituted group of ‘best burgesses’ or town council had been on hand to advise the borough authorities: in 1379, for example, it was agreed that eight such men should be chosen each year ‘to counsel and ordain all things for the common profit’; and, from time to time, specific issues (usually of a financial nature) were referred to experienced townsmen for their expert opinion. On other occasions the community as a whole was summoned to the guildhall to debate issues of general concern, such as the introduction, in 1351, of new ordinances for the government of the borough. The franchise was, of course, confined to those who had been admitted to the freedom of Hull, either by patrimony, apprenticeship or fine, and since valuable commercial privileges were also at stake these qualifications were strictly enforced. From 1412 onwards a prospective freeman had actually to secure the approval of seven members of the council, so it was fairly easy to maintain careful control over admissions.3 Hull (which boasted a population of some 2,300 in 1377) remained relatively free from the violent disturbances which affected the nearby port of Scarborough during our period, although one notable outbreak of disorder occurred in 1402, possibly as a result of plans for the cutting of a freshwater dyke from Anlaby to the town. In June of that year a number of shipmen raided the town prison, released the inmates, and then launched a murderous attack upon the mayor, whom they apparently wounded with their swords and axes.4 Even so, perhaps because it remained prosperous well into the 15th century, Hull was spared any protracted internal conflicts.
As a leading port and commercial centre for the north of England, Hull benefited not only from a flourishing coastal trade, but also from an important network of internal waterways, which made it the outport for Beverley and York, as well as providing easy access to markets in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. The connexion between Hull and York was particularly strong; and it has been estimated that by the end of the 14th century at least half the goods passing through the port (in terms of value rather than volume) were handled by merchants from York. The expansion of the English cloth trade at the expense of wool exports, and the attendant rise of London spelt the eventual decline of York and, inevitably, that of Hull, although during our period trade figures remained buoyant. Between 1395 and 1399, for example, 20,703 sacks of wool and 18,950 lengths of cloth were shipped from Hull; and over a period of four years ending in 1424 wool exports reached an even higher total of 23,090 sacks. Of all the ports in England, London alone dealt in larger consignments of wool, although in certain years Hull actually achieved the national record for the greatest volume of exports. The bulk of these shipments was destined for the Low Countries, which provided Hull with its most valuable overseas markets. Another important connexion was with Gascony, since a growing number of Hull merchants were involved in the wine trade. Imports rose steadily during our period (customs were paid on some 2,985 tuns in 1389 and 1390), a significant quantity of wine being carried in local ships. From the Baltic came timber, oil, iron, wax, fish, copper, linen, canvas and dyestuffs, transported for the most part by Hanseatic merchants, who had a factory in Hull. Commercial rivalry between them and the shipowners of Hull and York was already quite intense, since the English hoped to open up the Baltic to their own vessels, and acts of piracy (on both sides) were by no means uncommon. A number of MPs, including John Bedford II, John Birken, John Hedon, Robert Holme II, William Pound, Robert Snainton, John Saunderson and William Terry I, were themselves involved in incidents of this kind, some of which came perilously close to upsetting the delicate diplomatic relations between England and Prussia. Always anxious to extend their field of operations, the mariners and merchants of Hull travelled to countries stretching from Ireland to Portugal, dealing in whatever local commodities were on offer.5
Their expertise as seamen meant, too, that they and their ships were often in demand in times of war to transport troops, patrol the North Sea, and defend the coast against enemy attack.6 From time to time, royal letters patent were granted to leading merchants such as John Bedford II, Thomas Fountenay, Robert Holme II and William Terry I permitting them to arm their ships ‘against the King’s enemies’, although these licences were all too frequently used as a pretext for freebooting activities of the most flagrant and indiscriminate kind. As in the days of Edward I, the men of Hull were most closely involved in warfare against the Scots, both as soldiers and sailors and as agents for the supply of equipment and victuals to the royal army. In 1384, for example, all sessions of the peace were temporarily suspended because ‘the greatest part of the fencible men of the town [had] gone by land and sea to Scotland on the King’s service for war, and the remainder [were] hardly enough for the safeguard of the town’.7 A great deal of money could be made from provisioning troops, and the temptation to defraud the government by selling off the better quality foodstuffs for personal gain was always strong. William Pound, who had been commissioned to requisition supplies for the army which Henry IV led across the border in 1400, was accused of such an offence, and of intimidating local farmers, too, but he seems to have escaped conviction. Hull itself was protected on the land side by walls which were built in the mid 14th century, and evidently proved rather costly to maintain. In petitioning for their royal charter of 1382, the burgesses drew attention to the heavy expenses involved in keeping up these defences; and three years later they were excused from sending representatives to Parliament ‘on account of the fortifications of the town, which they are executing at great expense’.8 Appeals were also made for help in protecting the harbour against tidal erosion and floods, which caused considerable damage. In 1396, for example, a grant of £66 13s.4d. p.a. for the next five years was allocated to the townspeople in response to their request for assistance in building an effective barrier against ‘le grante force de lewe de Humbre’.9
Returns for Hull survive for 20 of the 32 Parliaments which met between 1386 and 1421, and we also know who was elected to the first Parliament of 1416. It is thus possible to establish the identity of 24 of the men who represented the borough during this period, but with so many gaps in the evidence the extent of each individual’s parliamentary experience remains open to question. Although no less than 12 of their number appear to have sat only once, some were probably returned rather more often. Five men attended a minimum of two Parliaments each, and two were elected to three; Simon Grimsby I and Robert Kirkton each evidently served on four occasions, Robert Holme II on six, and Thomas Kirkby I on eight. No other parliamentary burgess came near to rivalling John Fitling, who was selected at least 11 times between 1406 and 1431. Even allowing for the limitations of the sources, it looks as if the electors of Hull preferred, where possible, to return at least one representative who had sat before, and thus had some knowledge of the Lower House. In the four Parliaments of 1391, 1414 (Nov.), 1415 and 1421 (Dec.) both Members appear to have been newcomers, but on a further 13 occasions one of them had already represented Hull in the Lower House; and in 1394, 1399, 1411 and 1421 (May) the borough returned two men with previous parliamentary experience. Continuity of representation was also sometimes ensured by the immediate re-election of Members: Thomas Kirkby I sat in each of the five Parliaments which met between 1391 and 1397 (Jan.), John Fitling was re-elected in 1407, and John Bedford II in 1420 and 1421 (May). So far as we can tell, each of the 24 burgesses sat in an average of between two and three Parliaments, although it is possible that this average was, in fact, higher. None of them appears to have been returned by another constituency.
All of the men here under review were living in Hull at the time of their election to Parliament; and most appear to have been resident for the best part of their adult lives. There was, traditionally, a strong sense of local pride on the part of the electorate, which almost always chose to return those leading members of the mercantile community who not only dominated the government of the town but also ensured its continued prosperity. Only three MPs — Walter Grimsby, Robert Hornsea and Thomas Swan — were not apparently involved in overseas trade, although Grimsby (an obscure figure about whom little evidence survives) was almost certainly the son or nephew of Simon Grimsby I, an affluent and successful merchant. Hornsea described himself in his will as ‘Master Robert Hornsea, clerk of Hull’, which suggests that he may have been town clerk or keeper of the borough records, and probably thus possessed of some kind of legal training. No other lawyers were, however, returned during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. Several MPs (including John Aldwick, John Fitling, Thomas Fountenay, John Hedon and Adam Tutbury) were property owners on an impressive scale, with tenements, rents, shops and warehouses in the borough, but only a few occupied much land elsewhere. Both John Bedford II and Simon Grimsby I married widows with jointures in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and it was probably through his wife that William Terry I acquired property in Lincolnshire. John Leversegge farmed land in Cottingham and Beverley, and Robert Holme II had extensive estates in Hedon. The latter was, most probably, the richest man to sit for Hull in this period, being able, in this will of 1449, to dispose of £810 in cash, over £150 of which was set aside for an ambitious scheme of public works. It was, even so, as merchants and shipowners that he and his colleagues earned most of their incomes, their principal interest being in commerce rather than landowning.
Between them, the parliamentary burgesses of Hull could boast a considerable amount of administrative experience, since all but two (Hugh Clitheroe and Walter Grimsby) occupied some kind of office in the town, and several were employed by the Crown in various capacities as well. At least 12 served as mayors of Hull, often more than once. Both John Fitling and Simon Grimsby I had four terms to their credit, Thomas Marshall had five, and John Leversegge six. Each of them had previously held office as bailiff (a qualification evidently demanded of anyone who sought election to the mayoralty), as, indeed, had a further nine MPs, none of whom went on to be mayor. The post of bailiff, which could prove onerous but clearly carried less prestige, was usually occupied just once by men at or near the start of their careers. Thus, 18 of the 21 MPs who became bailiffs did so before first sitting in the Commons, whereas only two men (John Birken and John Leversegge) occupied the mayoralty before they entered the Lower House. During the later Middle Ages, Hull’s chief value to the government lay in the customs levied on goods passing in and out of the port, and exactly one third (eight) of our men were involved in one way or another with the collection of these revenues. John Bedford II, Simon Grimsby I and William Pound were, moreover, employed as deputy butlers of Hull; but the loss of the records of the local Staple makes it impossible to provide a complete account of the expertise which they and their colleagues acquired in the commercial sphere. Only Thomas Kirkby I and Simon Grimsby I are known to have been officers of the Hull Staple, although there is a strong possibility that many other MPs served too. At least nine were chosen to sit on royal commissions, mostly for the muster of mariners and men-at-arms to fight against the enemy at sea, but also for the investigation of acts of piracy—some of which they or their friends had actually committed. In contrast, only four men were selected to collect taxes for the Crown, while John Leversegge alone received a royal commission of the peace. He was, in fact, appointed to sit on the bench at Beverley, in April 1396, probably through the influence of his then employer, Thomas Arundel, archbishop of York, who had previously made him receiver of his estates in the area. John Spalding is the only MP known to have held the post of coroner of Hull, but again insufficient evidence has survived, in the way of coroners’ rolls, for us to be certain on this point.
For most of the 14th century, the town of Hull was dominated by the de la Pole family, most notably in the person of William de la Pole† (d.1366), the first native Englishman to lend to the Crown on the same lavish scale as the Italians. A man of immense wealth and oscillating political fortunes, de la Pole served as mayor and Member of Parliament for Hull, rose to become Edward III’s chief financial agent, suffered a dramatic fall from favour, and was eventually obliged to renounce all the vast debts owed to him by the government. The career of his son and heir, Michael, was no less dramatic: having won the favour of Richard II, who created him earl of Suffolk in 1385, he incurred the wrath of the Lords Appellant, was convicted of treason by the Merciless Parliament of February 1388 and fled to Paris, where he died shortly afterwards. His son, another Michael (d. at Harfleur in 1415), was twice restored to the earldom, in 1397 and 1399, and eventually managed to re-establish the family in a position of trust.10 During our period, then, the de la Poles spent comparatively little time in Hull (where they owned the manor of Myton), and although the first two earls were both actively involved in the endowment of a charterhouse there the burgesses had few direct dealings with them. Only four MPs can be said to have maintained any real connexion with the family: both Simon Grimsby I and John Hedon leased property from the de la Poles, while John Leversegge and John Bedford II acted as trustees and attorneys for, respectively, the 2nd and 4th earls.
Hull first sent Members to Parliament in 1305, but was not represented on a regular basis for another 30 years or so. Until 1440, when the borough became a shire-incorporate, the sheriff of Yorkshire was responsible for holding elections, although in practice the two bailiffs made the return, their names being recorded, along with those of the successful candidates and their mainpernors, on the back of the writ of summons. It was by no means unusual for the mayor or bailiffs to take advantage of this situation by returning themselves. Thus, for example, William Pound secured his own election in February 1388 because he wanted to negotiate the purchase of two ships from the government; and John Leversegge likewise exploited his position in 1407 in the hope that he could obtain the settlement of certain overdue expenses at the Exchequer. On at least three other occasions, in 1391, 1419 and 1420, a serving official had himself returned. There is, however, nothing to suggest that any of these men were at all unwelcome to the electorate, or that they would not otherwise have been able to obtain a seat in the Commons. Nor has any evidence survived of undue pressure being brought to bear by outsiders at election time; indeed, the freemen of Hull who assembled at the guildhall to make their choice of representatives seem to have maintained a staunch independence in this respect.
- 1. W. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, iv. 1020.